Mystery Buyer Revealed for Baltimore Clayworks Buildings, as Community Group Still Works to Block the Sale

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Photo via Mount Washington Village Association

The mystery buyer of two Mount Washington buildings owned by Baltimore Clayworks revealed its identity yesterday, even as a community group continued its efforts to delay or cancel the sale.

Itineris, a nonprofit organization that works with adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, is the contract purchaser of the buildings at 5706 and 5707 Smith Avenue, the current home of ceramics-centric nonprofit Baltimore Clayworks.

Trustees of the arts organization disclosed in February that they planned to sell one or both of their buildings to address ongoing financial problems. In April, they revealed they had a letter of intent from a potential buyer, but didn’t say who it was, at the buyer’s request.

Yesterday, the executive director of Itineris, Ami Taubenfeld, came to the annual meeting of the Mount Washington Improvement Association and announced that her organization has a contract to buy the two buildings for $3.7 million.

“We are the entity …that is the contract purchaser for the Baltimore Clayworks buildings,” she said. “We look forward to being part of the community.”

Taubenfeld, who came to the meeting with her organization’s director of clinical services, Caroline Hubbard, said Itineris is currently located in Woodberry and has been looking for a location where it can expand. She said the organization looked at more than 20 sites, from Station North to Hampden to Towson, and decided the Clayworks properties best suited its needs.

Founded in 2006, Itineris works to provide opportunities for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It says other organizations are devoted to working with children who have autism, but Itineris is one of the only agencies in the greater Baltimore region that provides specialized services for adults. Its slogan is “charting the journey alongside adults with autism.”

Ami Taubenfeld and Caroline Hubbard of Itineris. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Baltimore Clayworks purchased its original studio building at 5706 Smith Avenue, formerly an Enoch Pratt Library branch, from the city in 1980. It houses 15 kilns, 13 artist studios, three large classroom studios, a semi-private studio space and two glaze rooms.

The Saint Paul Companies donated Baltimore Clayworks’ second building, at 5707 Smith Avenue, in 1999. A former convent built in the late 19th century, it now holds the organization’s gallery, shops and administrative offices, among other facilities.

The organization asked $4.5 million for the two buildings, plus a 40-space parking lot near the Mount Washington light rail stop.

Taubenfeld said the organization won’t have to do much to modify the buildings except paint some areas and perhaps add a few partitions. She said four large kilns will be left in one building, with the hope that Itineris’ clients and others may be able to use them to make ceramics.

The organization is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, when its staff works with clients who come from around the Baltimore area. Many of the employees take public transportation to work, so having the Mount Washington light rail stop nearby will be useful, Taubenfeld said. Responding to a question from the audience, she and Hubbard said no one will stay on the premises overnight.

Marsha Smelkinson of the Clayworks Community Campaign. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The sale is expected to be presented to the state Board of Public Works for approval in July. The state board is required to approve the sale because it has supported Baltimore Clayworks financially through a series of bond bills over the years. If a sale is approved, the buyer will have 45 days to complete the transaction.

Taubenfeld said Itineris wants to be in its new home by March 2018. The organization is open to the idea of allowing community residents — including members of Baltimore Clayworks — to use its buildings. She said Itineris has dance classes and other community activities at its Woodberry location on Rockrose Avenue.

“We’re interested in working with the local community,” she said.

Baltimore Clayworks has not decided where it might move once its buildings are sold. Board members have said they want to first complete the sale before they focus on finding a new location. Options include moving to one of the city’s arts and entertainment districts.

Representatives for Baltimore Clayworks’ board did not address the Mount Washington meeting yesterday and did not respond to requests for comment this week. Its interim executive director, Devon Powell, provided an open letter at the meeting, explaining why he believes the sale was necessary to the organization.

In his letter, he painted a dire picture of the organization’s finances. As of June 13, he said, Baltimore Clayworks has:

  • Less than $50,000 in liquid assets and no credit lines of any kind.
  • More than $1 million in total debt with one note coming due in August 2018 of about $600,000 and one in December 2017 for $50,000.
  • More than $90,000 in accounts payable that are “in many cases 90-120 days out with collections and other legal actions being threatened daily.”

In addition, he wrote, the organization has been unable to pay its artist commissions for May and its Maryland sales and use taxes. “We have an ongoing cash flow issue whereby our income does not outpace our expenses” most months, he wrote.

“The bottom line is that we are going to run out of money and operations/the mission will cease without the sale of the properties taking place.”

Powell closed his letter by asking readers to encourage the Board of Public Works to approve the sale.

A poster with signatures addressed to Gov. Larry Hogan. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The pending sale has drawn opposition from many Clayworks members, who say they don’t want it to proceed because the buildings are valuable assets for the organization and would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

The opponents, organized as the Clayworks Community Campaign, are encouraging people to sign and send letters and petitions to Mayor Catherine Pugh, Gov. Larry Hogan and others asking them not to support the sale.

Marsha Smelkinson, an organizer of the campaign, said at the Mount Washington meeting that she has nothing against Itineris.

“I am very impressed with Itineris,” she said. “They’re a very sound organization. Who wouldn’t want to have these wonderful buildings, surrounded by a wonderful community? That’s what Baltimore Clayworks has had for 37 years.”

But Smelkinson and others say they will continue to do what they can to prevent the sale.

On Monday, they held a “no sale meeting” that drew more than 120 people to the Corner Community Center on Roland Avenue.

At that meeting, half a dozen elected officials vowed to help the Community Campaign supporters prevent or delay the sale of Baltimore Clayworks buildings, though one representative warned the effort may not be successful and another said he can’t support the group at this time because he doesn’t know enough about the issue. Some of the same officials came to the Mount Washington meeting the following night.

That group included State Dels. Bilal Ali, Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg and Mary Washington, and Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer. State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, who came late to the Monday meeting and left early, is the one who said he couldn’t promise his support.

“I do not have the information I need,” he said.

Schleifer said he would introduce a council resolution asking Hogan to step in and resolve the issue.

“I’m happy to do anything I can,” Schleifer said. “You guys are in a terrible situation. If anything deserves to be saved, Baltimore Clayworks does.”

Rosenberg said he would not ask the Board of Public Works to disapprove of the sale because he didn’t think members would agree to cancel it. He believes the best strategy is to focus on funds that the state might want to recoup from the sale and to reimburse taxpayers for supporting Baltimore Clayworks and its capital projects over the years, if the buildings were no longer used by Clayworks.

Rosenberg said he doesn’t have a figure for exactly how much the state has invested through bond bills over the years, but suggested it could be about $1 million. He also said he would ask the state board to delay making any decisions about seeking reimbursements for state contributions to Clayworks, so it could have time to get more information about Clayworks’ future plans. That, he said, could indirectly delay the sale of the buildings.

Some community campaign members didn’t agree with Rosenberg’s strategy, arguing that while the state might get some money back, it wouldn’t stop the sale.

Others who spoke on Monday in favor of blocking the sale included former Clayworks executive director Deborah Bedwell, arts educator George Ciscle, architect Laura Penza, attorney Douglas Silber and community activist Ralph Moore.

Smelkinson said she was pleased with the turnout and suggestions made at Monday’s meeting, and especially the participation from elected officials. The Clayworks trustees have made comments indicating that the Community Campaign was a small group, she said, but the turnout showed elected officials who attended that the group is large and passionate about blocking the sale.

“Despite the press releases and white papers that belittle us,” she said, “we are strong. We love Baltimore Clayworks, and we want it to have a successful future. The battle isn’t over yet.”

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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2 COMMENTS

  1. I find it very bizarre that (i) folks are asking the Governor to get involved in such a parochial issue; and (ii) the city of Baltimore and the state have invested money in this group. If it can’t meet its debt obligations, Baltimore Clayworks should face the same choices that every family and business in the state contends with, without any government bailouts or other intervention. It’s surreal that the financial condition of an arts and crafts non-profit merits this sort of attention.

  2. I feel like we’re not getting the full story here. They have a million dollar debt. How exactly did they think they were going to come up with that kind of money? Why did they borrow it if they knew they couldn’t pay it back? And why is the city giving them money? Do they provide services to kids or a vulnerable population? The whole thing stinks of corruption and/or mismanagement.

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